RGVBF Day Four: To Salineño and the Dump!

My alarm started blaring at 4:00 am: I couldn’t get up. I eventually dragged my lifeless body to the shower and cleaned up. The cold water woke me up. I grabbed my bagged lunch from the check in desk and my dad and I went to the car.

I was dropped off at the convention center around 5 o’clock, and I once again aquired the precious front row bus seat. It was the same group from King Ranch: Me, Baxter and Tucker, Ezra and Theo and their mom Joanna, and Ander and Paul.

By 5:30 the charter bus was on the road due west. We all got some more sleep until we stopped at a gas station. I was tempted by the cases of Red Bull and Monster in the fridge. We returned to the bus and continued.

As the sun rose, the bus turned left and onto a small gravel road. The road was lined with small homes, and at the end was the parking lot of a small Catholic Church. We got out and walked down towards the river as a group, and our guides advised us to put our phones on “airplane mode” to avoid picking up service from Mexican carriers.

I heard a Black Phoebe calling, which was later found on top of some machinery along the road.


Black Phoebe

An Archilochus hummingbird vocalized in the vegetation but was not seen: possibly a Black-chinned Hummingbird. White-winged Doves and Green Jays flocked around, and Olive Sparrows called from the brush.

We reached the river bank and watched the great numbers of Green Jays flying back and forth over the border. Altamira Orioles sang their beautiful songs in the background, and an Audubon’s Oriole was found perched on top of a tree. I was amazed by the striking yellow body and black head. The bird flew off and across the river, perching on a willow, and began to sing, filling the atmosphere with the strangely beautiful sounds of weeping.

After a few minutes, we were split into three groups: one visited the feeding station, one looked for White-collared Seedeaters, and one (us) scanned the riverfront for flyby Muscovy Ducks and Red-billed Pigeons.

The groups dispersed and we began to scan the river, seeing many Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants flying up and down the river, and a flock of Mexican Mallards was found distant upriver. Some Greater White-fronted Geese flew overhead, along with a flock of American White-Pelicans.

Suddenly, a sound which strongly resembled a machine gun was heard distantly: a Ringed Kingfisher. After several seconds, the massive bird came into view, speeding downriver as it continued to call. A second kingfisher appeared, and the two circled around at great heights overhead. We marveled at their great size: they dwarfed Belted Kingfishers and shamed Green.

We waited along the river for something interesting to show up.



The male and female kingfishers perched on a snag in Mexico.


Female (L) and Male (R)

The group that looked for the seedeaters returned with good news, they had seen the elusive birds in the canes!

Anxious to look for this rare species, we quietly walked up and onto a trail that continued through thick Mesquite and Retama plants. The birders had seen the seedeaters about 20 minutes ago, but did not bother to tell us sooner.

We looked quietly and thoroughly, hoping to find the tiny, secretive birds clinging to the canes that lined the river bank. After the nearby cane patches were searched, we began to scour the ones on the islands and in Mexico.

After searching for a while, we made our own path to reach some canes further upriver. We pished out some Lincoln’s Sparrows and yellowthroats, but no seedeater.

A Gray Hawk was found perched on a large tree far upriver, and the bird’s scream was heard faintly in the distance, muffled by the calls of nearby kiskadees, jays, and woodpeckers.

We sat patiently.

Rustling in the canes. Binoculars up! “Just a yellowthroat.”

“tsip!” “Sounds like an Olive”

A passerine flew by. “Too much tail for a seedeater.”

This repeated for the next hour until we completely lost hope.

On our way back to the road, we stopped for a flock of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Orange-crowned Warblers with a pretty Verdin mixed in.

We made a brief stop at the feeding station.


Altamira Oriole

We departed with 33 species on our Mexico lifelist, and headed up to Chapeño, finding a Greater Roadrunner running along the road (quite fitting).

We arrived and were given sodas as a consolation for the groups that missed the seedeaters. The birds were quiet and only a few unidentifiable meadowlarks and a White-tailed Hawk were seen.

After thirty minutes of sitting around, we left the newly dubbed “Crapeño” (curtesy of the younger birders), and started the journey back to Harlingen. We were told earlier that we were going to be trying for some desert species, but apparently we didn’t have time.

To pass the time on the road, the young birders on either side of the bus had a competition for bus-listing in Starr County. My side on the left clearly won with 19 species, because the others began desperately stringing Lesser Goldfinches and White-winged Doves in an attempt to win.

Back in the range of cell service, we received word that Gabriel and Raymond had pinned down two Tamaulipas Crows at the famous Brownsville Dump!

This species hadn’t been seen in the U.S. for almost a decade, but throughout late fall, a couple of reports were scattered throughout South Texas, even on a pelagic in the Gulf.

Once we finally pulled into the convention center parking lot, we impatiently ran out of the bus. We found Gabriel and Raymond manning their booths at the trade show, who were giddy with excitement of their impressive find. They told us that the most recent report of the crows was from 20 minutes ago.

I called my dad to see if he was on his way; he arrived shortly, but Baxter and Tucker’s mom was running late. We had no time to lose, so we all squeezed into my dad’s car and Joanna’s car, and I punched in the coordinates for the dump as quickly as possible.

The excitement built up as we approached the dump, until we finally arrived and turned on to a road bustling with bulldozers and dump trucks. A metal gate marked the entrance of the once famous birding hotspot, which had been completely forgotten for the past decade.

We parked at the visitor center. We exited the cars into the rain, finding a massive flock of Laughing Gulls circling above a mountain of trash in the distance. Several Chihuahuan Ravens soared on the thermals as well. I signed the guest book, finding a multitude of famous birders’ names throughout the pages.

Back in the car, we began ascending a steep incline, until we reached a plateau and pulled our rental cars into a muddy, trash-smothered spot off the side of the road.

The birders dispersed, and several of us ran up a large hill of trash, where several birders were looking through a scope. The 360 degree view of the endless trash was shocking (it is probably the highest elevation in all of a south Texas), but I was quickly distracted when I was pulled in front of a scope, where I laid my eyes on a glossy, long-tailed corvid perched on a snag of firewood: a Tamaulipas Crow. I had (and still have) no words to describe the utter shock and excitement I experienced at that moment. I looked at the second briefly before letting the others see the bird.

We ran back down the trash and gull-laden hill towards a crowd of birders who stood about thirty feet of the crows.

I took a look in a beautiful Leica scope, and was astounded by the beautiful, glossy, iridescent-blue sheen of the crow. The bird made an effort to vocalize by holding its wings out and hunching it’s back, and it gave several low, nasally “cawww” calls.


Tamaulipas Crow

Although the deafening calls of thousands of Laughing Gulls and Great-tailed Grackles surrounded us, and bulldozers were constantly driving by, all I payed attention to was the crow.


A lovely day at the Brownsville Dump

We were all quite satisfied to be present the day the Tamaulipas Crows returned to the iconic Brownsville Dump, surrounded by some of the biggest names in birding.

I texted Oscar, hoping he would arrive soon, but he was running late. Shortly, the crows were flushed by a truck and temporarily lost. (Don’t worry, he got the bird!)

I would’ve liked to stay for another couple hours, but the rain continued to pour, and we were loosing daylight: I wanted to look for Aplomado Falcons!

We returned to the car, where I found my dad talking on the phone. He never saw the crow! I tried to convince him to come see, but he was uninterested. I will never understand non-birders.

We started the drive down the hill, stopping for the ravens.


Chihuahuan Ravens

And a caracara.


Crested Caracara

Baxter’s mom was running late to the dump, so the others stayed behind while my car (including Tucker and Paul) drove to the Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp in Laguna Atascosa. Oscar had found a Wilson’s Plover, so we were hoping to find the little shorebird before looking for falcons.

We arrived and parked, grabbing our muddy shoes and my scope from the trunk (need to keep that upholstery clean).

We scanned the Laughing Gull flock, but had no luck in finding a Franklin’s, so I crossed the highway and stood on the shoulder, scanning the shorebird flocks. Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers dominated the flats. It felt like home until a Long-billed Curlew swooped in and landed in a nearby pond.


Long-billed Curlew

The others arrived shortly, so we left the boat ramp ploverless and set the route to the Aplomado Falcon Viewing Area for our second try for the species.

We parked and I walked bare-footed with my scope, doing a thorough scan of the barren landscape, a familiar task from yesterday. We found nothing, and returned to the cars.

We decided it would never worth checking Old Port Isabel Road, so we hit the road. My poor navigation skills resulted in us doing several circles back and forth down the highway, because the wall separating traffic was quite troublesome: we couldn’t see across and had to drive several miles before making a U-turn.

At last, we turned onto a small gravel road and continued along it with windows down. Gunshots fired in the distance. We scanned the wires and fences for falcons. Suddenly, the other car ahead came to a halt. Baxter exited the car and pointed to the left. In the distance I saw two birds perched on a fencepost. A raise of the binoculars confirmed Aplomado Falcon! We ran out of the car and got scopes on the birds.


One of the Aplomado Falcons

The sun set, and marked the end of another incredible day. Dinner this time was at Chili’s, where I treated myself to a Cowboy Burger with jalapeño peppers, onion rings, and barbecue sauce. A good day in South Texas.


RGVBF Day Three: Big Day

We exited the cars in the parking lot of Santa Ana NWR at dawn—it was cold. I reached for my jacket. The environment was a bizarre combination of harsh cold winds and unusual tropic flora.

The group of birders continued through the visitor center and past the feeding station. Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Green Jays, White-winged Doves, and Inca Doves flushed from the trail-edges into the vegetation.

Our big day group consisted of myself, Oscar, Baxter, Tucker, Ezra, Theo, Ander, Paul, Gabriel, and Raymond: a friend of Gabriel and one of our guides from the previous day. The parents were present as well.

Further down the trail we encountered a flock of kiskadees, jays, woodpeckers, and an Altamira Oriole. We followed the bird as it moved down the trail, marveling at the brilliant orange and black plumage. Both Spanish Moss and hundreds of frost-covered Queens draped from the trees along the trail.


Altamira Oriole

The trail came out to a large pond, and we approached slowly, prepared to scan the waterfowl flocks. Raymond unfolded the legs of his tripod and began to scan with his Leica scope. Gabriel did the same with his trusty Ziess.

Coots, grebes, whistling ducks, diving ducks, and a large variety of dabbling ducks foraged on the water. Several kiskadees and a pair of Tropical Kingbirds sang to us from behind.

I spotted a Peregrine flying over the pond, and watched it quickly dive straight down on a flock of Gadwall. The falcon pursued a single Gadwall across the entire pond, until the falcon grew tired and lifted back up into the thermals to continue circling overhead. A pair of Harris’s Hawks flew by, and the call of a Long-billed Curlew was heard. We looked up to see the large, elegant shorebird flying overhead.

On our way back to the visitor center, a large RGVBF tour was birding the trail. One of the leaders was Bryan, a local of the valley. I had communicated with him beforehand, and he had shared some of his extensive knowledge of the Lower Rio Grande with me. Without his help, the big day route I had planned wouldn’t exist. We talked briefly before departing: there were birds to see!

We arrived at the visitor center and found good numbers of Orange-crowned Warblers, as well as an Olive Sparrow calling in the brush.

Although it was a “big day”, we all spent a few minutes in the gift shop, and I bought a nice poster.


RGV Specialties

I was paying at the register when Gabriel busted into the room and yelled “Gray Hawk!” I dropped my wallet and ran to the door and opened it, immediately hearing the harsh scream of the Gray Hawk. We approached the group of birders and looked up into the nearby tree, where a small, long-tailed buteo with gray and black barred underparts perched.


Gray Hawk

We carpooled west to Anzalduas Park. There, we exited the cars and walked carefully across the sandy, harvester ant-laden lawn, dotted with live oaks, with a pile of dilapidated playground equipment at its center. Border security guards were in great numbers, watching us from a distance.

We stopped at a fishing dock on the Rio Grande. Those of us visiting the valley for the first time were surprised by the width of the river. Two distant Black Phoebes flycatched off of an island on the river.

We walked through the park, Green Jays constantly flying from oak to oak. A House Finch, uncommon in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, foraged in a tree. After a while we reached a levee and walked up to the top, where we overlooked an expansive tract of woodlands. We kept our eyes peeled, looking for Hook-billed Kites and Zone-tailed Hawks.

Each Turkey Vulture was scanned, until we noticed a dark buteo flying towards us. All black with a white line through the tail: Zone-tailed Hawk! As the bird approached, so did a border patrol officer, and we were asked to leave the levee, a place where birders have been allowed to visit even before the festival first began almost 25 years ago.

Pleased by the lucky timing, the bird approached and posed very well, flying low only 20 feet away. We snapped some photos and quickly got off of the levee.


Zone-tailed Hawk

Back at the car, we started out main route east. Our plan was to hit some spots along the way, ending the day at South Padre Island.

We got off of Route 2 in the late morning and entered the town of Weslaco, finding many saloons, Mexican restaurants, and boot stores along the boulevard.

Shortly, we arrived at Frontera Audubon Center, a small, fifteen acre natural area in the City of Weslaco. A Tropical Parula was sighted earlier in the morning, so we were hoping to find it in a mixed flock.

Gabriel and Raymond departed, both having to work their booths at the RGVBF Trade Show.

We walked a small trail towards the Visitor Center, and I flushed a beautiful White-tipped Dove off of the trail: yet another lifer.

After paying, we continued down a trail to a series of trails that maneuvered through the trees. Unlike the other natural areas we had visited before, we were able to get in the habitat and appreciate the subtle details. We heard a Clay-colored Thrush calling, and found eight of them hiding in the vegetation. The views were stunning, but the birds weren’t very cooperative for photographing.

As we birded, a mixed flock of warblers came in on the opposite side of a small pond, and we thoroughly scanned it, finding many Orange-crowns, some Nashville’s, and a Black-throated Green. Finding no parula, we split into two groups to better cover the park.

As my little group (Tucker and Theo) walked the trails, a brilliant emeral flash in the sunlight darted across the path. The tiny bird perched: it was a Buff-bellied Hummingbird.


Buff-bellied Hummingbird

We encountered several other hummingbirds, but no mixed flocks that could host a parula.

Once we had looked everywhere, we met up and sat at a feeding station to get good views of the White-tipped Doves. I was shocked by how large they were. The bright red legs and iridescent nape were admired.


White-tipped Dove

The Plain Chachalacas were tame.


Plain Chachalaca

We spent almost an hour enjoying the feeders until we realized that this was a big day! I stopped at the thrush spot and quickly grabbed a bad photo. Oscar had to depart, so after a goodbye, we hit the road.


Clay-colored Thrush

Back at Estero, we birded the ponds, finding a cooperative White-faced Ibis and a close Mottled Duck.


White-faced Ibis


Mottled Duck

We then visited the pauraque spot, where we found three of the little nighjars sitting on the ground within a few feet of each other!


Common Pauraque

We all got the screech-owl in the owl box and continued up the levee, where we saw American White-Pelicans, avocets, stilts, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Stilt Sandpipers. A large flock of Tree Swallows produced some Cave Swallows.

Back in the car, we continued the long trek east to Laguna Atascosa NWR. We arrived at the Aplomado Falcon Viewing Area, a small parking lot off of state route 100. We grabbed our scopes set them down, preparing to scour the expansive grassland. The winds were reaching high speeds, and Baxter, Ezra, and I scanned the distant palmettos and snags for falcons. The only falcons we found were a handful of kestrels and caracaras. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Loggerhead Shrikes perched on fences and power lines.

We gave up after about a half hour later, and drove towards South Padre Island, being fooled by a Merlin pretending to be an Aplomado along the way.

We took the bridge over the Laguna Madre, the harsh winds pushing on the side of the car, and the terns and gulls struggling in the winds. After crossing, we then drove up Padre Island to the Convention Center.

Baxter took us to the mudflat just after the convention center, a spot he visited last year. With great effort, the doors of the cars were opened despite the raging winds. Baxter and I took the scopes, and we ventured out on to the mudflats.

I was thankful I had bought waterproof shoes, because most of the time we were walking through pools in the mud.

We continued against the winds towards the large flock of shorebirds and gulls, determined to add some final species to our list. Once all of the birds were within view of the naked eye, we set down our scopes, and never took our hands off of them. I spotted some plovers: Semipalmated, Black-bellied, a Piping, and two Snowy—another life bird! Ander kept my scope from flying off while I snapped some shots.


Snowy Plover (The dismal wind and lighting made photography tricky)

Black Skimmers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Dunlin, Sanderlings, and Willet were found further down the flat.

Everyone was rather hysterical due to our sleep deprivation and the udder insanity of running around in mud with 30 mph winds. We skipped stones on the pools as we ran back to the car.


Birders, attack!

We drove right over the the convention center and birded the boardwalk there, snagging Lesser Yellowlegs, Reddish Egret, Common Gallinule, and Green Kingfisher. Laughing Gulls shot eastward in the winds, just over our heads.

The sun set on Laguna Madre, and we returned to the car, an epic day of birding completed.

The celebration continued at the Olive Garden (it was the closest thing to Mexican food: there weren’t any decent Mexican restaurants in Harlingen). We treated ourselves to bottomless salad and soup, and I enjoyed a nice salmon with pasta and lemon alfredo.



We counted the total: 126 species, and my second highest daylist. We could’ve seen many more species, but why do that when you can stop and smell the roses of South Texas?

RGVBF Day Two: King Ranch Norias Division

My dad dropped me off at the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium at 5:30am and I grabbed my gear and ran to the bus, claiming the seat in the front of the bus that Baxter had saved for me. I ran inside and grabbed my festival goodie bag, and returned to the bus. Ezra and Theo, more friends from Charlottesville, were also here for the tour.

We departed at 6:00am and headed north towards King Ranch,  where we would spend the day birding the ranch and looking for Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls and Sprague’s Pipits. We watched the sun rise over the expansive windmill-dotted agricultural fields of the Texas Coastal Plain as our guide educated us on the history of King Ranch.

The bus entered the ranch and we spotted many Harris’s Hawks perched on the snags and telephone posts. I enjoyed the mesquite grassland habitat, which was unlike anything I had seen before. We even watched a Nilgai and some Waterbuck (both large species of antelope native to Eurasia) gallop across the road.


We bypassed everything, and our guides seemed anxious to get to the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl spot. Apparently a big cold front was coming in during the morning.

The mesquite grassland dotted with cattle slowly became a denser mesquite habitat, and finally, into live oak woodlands.

We exited the van and I immediately got my lifers Green Jay, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Couch’s Kingbird. The guide then continued down the road and began to play for a Pygmy-Owl.  “toot toot toot toot toot…”  No response. “toot toot toot toot toot…” Our eyes scanned the oaks for a small little owl, our ears listened for a response. This repeated several times, and while we listened, I was able to snag a Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

We continued to walk down the road and watched a bobcat climb down a tree and scale the fence, running into the woods and out of sight. We stopped and started the playback. “toot toot toot toot toot..” Nothing. Black-crested Titmice were calling from the oaks, and Couch’s Kingbirds were singing from the tops of snags.


Black-crested Titmouse

A couple of people heard a distant owl respond, but I did not.

We walked a bit farther and stopped to play for owls. “toot toot toot toot toot…”

After ten minutes of playing for owls, we loaded into the van and continued up to another spot.

We unloaded and heard the familiar sound from the guide’s iPhone: “toot toot toot toot toot…” The birders were growing weary, so we decided to scan a mixed flock, finding kinglets, titmice, Orange-crowned Warblers, and a Nashville Warbler. A Long-billed Thrasher was calling from the thickets.

We enjoyed the butterflies along the road, which included Mallow and Red-crescent Scrub-Hairstreaks, as well as Cassius Blues. Rainbow Scarabs rolled fragments of dung down the road.

A few minutes later, I heard a whining and chatering call from an oak: a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet! He seemed quite agitated by the constant Pygmy-Owl call, and the birders were starting to feel the same way. Two more tyrannulets quickly showed up to the party.

After spending a long time following the birds, one finally stopped to take a 1/2 a second break, and I got a decent photo and some good views.


Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet—the bird that boasts a name larger than itself

The bird is named after its lack of rictal bristles, which are a common trait in most flycatchers and help with catching flying insects. The tyrannulet doesn’t flycatch, but gleans insects from branches, and therefore does not require rictal bristles.

After continuing down the road playing for owls, we hopped back into the van and drove a while, arriving at a new spot for owls.

The group followed the guides to another dense area of live oaks, finding a Dainty Sulphur and a Sickle-winged Skipper along the way. A calling Sprague’s Pipit flew over, another lifer! Although very exciting, I hoped to get more satisfying views later in the day.

We stopped and waited: “toot toot toot toot toot…”  No response.

This continued for fifteen minutes.

Suddenly, we heard a response. Was it just our imagination? Did we really hear it? We followed the sound back to Raymond, our guide, who was calling for owls. Dissapointed, we continued to search for the owls.

“toot toot toot toot toot…”

Whenever the call wasn’t being played, something felt missing: it was unusually quiet.

Another hour passed, and all that was seen was a Great Kiskadee and a White-tailed Hawk. The repetitive call of the owl was always present:

“toot toot toot toot toot..”

We listened:

“toot toot toot” 

An owl?! The call was distant, but it sounded like what we had been hearing for the past several hours, except the pitch was a bit lower. Only Baxter and I had heard it. Again, the observation was unsatisfactory and there was no way to be sure, so it was not counted.

The bus continued down the gravel road until the live oak woodlands became mesquite, then mesquite grasslands, and finally, open grasslands. The bus continued through the grassland habitat for some time, and we spotted several more Sprague’s Pipits from the car: their bouncy, staircase-like flight was distinctive.

We finally parked and unloaded, and then walked a small trail out into the grassland. We saw well over a hundred distant meadowlarks, unfortunately we couldn’t pick out any Westerns. Our guide stopped abruptly: he had found a Texas Horned Lizard, also known as a Horny Toad.


Texas Horned Lizard

This species ranges in the Southern Great Plains and is listed as threatened in the state of Texas. A truly lucky find, and what our guides thought was even better than seeing a Pygmy-Owl.

The guide placed him back down in the grasses and the lizard scurried away.

We continued down the trail, shocked by the great numbers of Sprague’s Pipits that flew by. After getting a group together, we called for the pipits, hoping they would land nearby for a view on the ground.

The pipits quickly approached, circling above in a group of ten or so. After several minutes, the three boldest of pipits began to circle down, giving their flight song as they bounced in the air. Once they neared the ground, they dove steeply and plopped down in the grasses, scattered around us.

We slowly approached one, but it flushed. We turned to the second, but this time our guide cut around to the other side of the pipit in an attempt to corner it. This worked—the pipit sat cooperatively in the grass. After spending some time getting everyone on the bird, we enjoyed the great views.


Sprague’s Pipit

The bird took off after foraging for a few seconds.

We returned to the van, photographing a stunning Scissor-tailed Flycatcher along the way.


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

After the long drive back to Harlingen, we ran to a local park behind the convention center, finding a flock of Bronzed Cowbirds. Two yellow-bellied kingbirds were perched on a wire, and we expected they were Tropical based off of habitat, and the insect-like song they gave after reaffirmed our suspicions.


Tropical Kingbird

My dad and I returned to the hotel, where picked up Oscar Wilhelmy, a good friend I met at Hog Island Camp in Maine. Oscar is currently attempting a mini Big Year, and is finishing it off with a trip to the Rio Grande Valley.

After meeting up with the Charlottesville crew, we carpooled to Estero Llano Grande State Park.

We parked and the entomologists of the group (myself included) immediately gravitated towards the gardens, finding common species like Queen, White Peacock, Rounded Metalmark, and Large Orange Sulphur.

We continued to the gift shop and observation deck, where we found a multitude of ducks at an unimaginably close range—I was used to seeing ducks from great distances. My dad described it as a “bird museum”. The most exciting waterfowl were both a Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling Duck, with a nice adult male Cinnamon Teal in between.


The duck-lifer trio of the trip

A Northern Shoveler a few feet away was another highlight.


Preening shoveler

We scanned the ducks and counted them up, finding an adult Least Grebe with a nearby baby in the process.



After leaving the “museum exhibit”, we walked the trail all the way to a spot with White-faced Ibis (a lifer for me), and Black-crowned Night-Herons (a yearbird for Oscar). The song of the Great Kiskadee was ever-present in the background. We continued on and stopped at the pauraque loop, to no avail. We all took some time to watch a little Eastern Screech-Owl (McCall’s subspecies).


We also found a Green Kingfisher fishing on a small creek.


Green Kingfisher

My dad and I stayed behind to watch the kingfisher feed—the bird often sat on the ground and dove into the stream to snatch minnows.

Further up the trail we climbed to the top of the levee, where we watched the American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Long-billed Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, and American White Pelicans on the bank.


Assorted waterbirds

We returned to the gift shop, but found a rather elusive Buff-bellied Hummingbird in the flower garden. The Plain Chachalacas didn’t want to show themselves either. I spoke with a birder who had found a pauraque back at the loop, so several of us returned to the spot, where we found a crowd of birders. They were watching the little camouflaged Common Pauraque, which was right on the edge of the trail. We probably walked right by it earlier without noticing.


Common Pauraque

After marveling at the camouflage of the pauraque, we ran back towards the parking lot,  having a close encounter with a White-tailed Kite along the way. Yet another lifer!


White-tailed Kite showing off his black wrist patch

We drove to Valley Nature Center in hopes of finding the Green Parakeets that nested there at dawn. An Inca Dove perched in a tree in the park. A pair of Red-crowned Parrots sped overhead noisily in a powerful flight—not quite what we were looking for but a bird we gladly accepted. They perched momentarily for us.


One of the Red-crowned Parrots

Although an hour late, we rushed over to Harlingen to stop at the RGVBF kickoff party for a while. There, we spoke with some of the big names in birding, and strategized for the big day tomorrow.

My dad, Oscar, an I ended a successful first day in South Texas with some fast food Mexican at El Pato. (Try the breakfast burritos)


RGVBF Day One: Gulf Coast

My dad and I woke up at 8:00 am in the Comfort Suites in Houston after a late night flight. I immediately sprang out of bed and opened the curtains, revealing lifebird #1 of the trip: a Great-tailed Grackle perched on a streetlight.


Great-tailed Grackle

We ate a quick breakfast and departed from our hotel on the 8:30 shuttle, and picked up our rental car for the week: a White Hyundai Sonata.

We hit the road towards Harlingen, Texas, where we would be attending the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (or RGVBF) for a week of intense birding.

We experienced some traffic on the highway, and I spotted a White-winged Dove from the car. After the stress of driving through Houston, we reached the suburbs, and shortly after, the flat, expansive grasslands of the Texas coastal plain. Loggerhead Shrikes were abundant along the road, and I found several Crested Caracaras perched on snags and soaring above. Countless Red-tailed Hawks and kestrels were seen from the car.

The drive on route 77 was long, until we turned onto a small state highway the led to the Gulf, where we would be looking for Whooping Cranes. After we turned onto the road, I noted the better quality grasslands, and predicted I would see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher within a matter of minutes. Sure enough, we saw three scissor-tails perched on the wires. They repeatedly flew off into the field to flycatch, their long plume-like tails trailing behind gracefully.


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

About an hour later, we approached the Lamar area, and I spotted the unique shape of a White-tailed Hawk from the car. We pulled over and watched the hawk soar with some Turkey Vultures. Shortly, a Red-tailed Hawk approached and stooped into a dive straight down towards the White-tailed Hawk, knocking it out of the air for a few seconds, until the bird regained control.


White-tailed Hawk

We also stopped again to get better looks at a scissor-tail.


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

We arrived at Lamar, and noticed the devastation from Hurricane Harvey: trees had been derooted and many houses were left in ruin. We drove the roads, looking for Whooping Cranes on the fields and ponds. After extensive searching, the only interesting things I had found were 15 Wilson’s Snipes and a few Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, my 5th lifer.

I decided it would be worth checking out Aransas NWR, which was a 40 minute detour north.

After this long and boring drive, we arrived and parked at the visitor center, where we saw more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and some Collared Peccaries: little pig-like animals also known as Javelinas.

Our first stop was the Observation Tower, which overlooked a small portion of the expansive saltmarsh in the refuge.  A handful of Whooping Cranes had been reported over the past few weeks, but mostly from boats.

I ascended to the top of the observation deck, scaring off the roosting Black Vultures. Even with them roosting in the live oaks below, their presence was still obvious due to the floor of the tower, which was completely covered in droppings. I admired the scenery, set up my scope, and began to scan.



The first thing I noticed was a sizable flock of almost 2,000 ducks, primarily Ayatha such as Redheads, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Ducks. Smaller flocks of dabblers flew by, including Gadwall, wigeons, pintails, and shovelers. It felt strange to watch ducks comfortably in shorts and a t-shirt.

On the mudflats along the saltmarsh I found a diversity of waders, from Reddish Egrets to Roseate Spoonbills: two species I hadn’t seen in over a year. I didn’t find any cranes, so I decided to explore other habitats in the refuge. The wildlife drive only produced some Sedge Wrens, a Savannah Sparrow, and other common species.

As sunset approached, I returned to the tower to find that my friend Baxter had arrived, along with his brother Tucker, and friends Ander and Paul. The bird activity had increased, and the scope-wielders scanned the flats once again, finding nothing else new besides a large Wild Boar foraging in the grasses.

Once Baxter and I got restless from scanning, we all decided to take a break. Paul, a new yet determined birder, borrowed a scope and began to meticulously scan the marsh. Every couple minutes we would hear him call “is this a crane?” Each time, we climbed the tower to take a glance in the scope, usually finding a distant Great Egret or White Ibis. Eventually, we heard Paul yell “I have the crane!” Doubtful, we returned to the scope, and sure enough, we saw a massive white bird with a hunched back, long neck, and red facial pattern—a Whooping Crane! Exhilarated, everyone savored the stunning views of this endangered species, and took some awful photos.


Whooping Crane—my rarest bird

We celebrated Paul’s impressive feat.



A couple more notable species were a Neotropic Cormorant in a flock of double crests, a beautiful male Vermillion Flycatcher, a nice flyby Reddish Egret, and a small flock of Sandhill Cranes.

As we were about to exit the refuge, a massive flock of almost 1000 geese flew overhead. After several minutes of trying to identify the species, we finally realized that Greater White-fronted Goose, a rarity in Virginia, was the most common and expected species of goose in Texas. We were still very rusty at getting into a Texas birding mindset!

Sparrows and Shrikes in the county

The Blue Ridge Young Birders met at the Great Valu in Crozet at 7:30 am, and carpooled to Albemarle County Community Park. The Park is situated in the Old Trail neighboorhood, but is fairly underbirded compared to the nearby Old Trail Golf Course area.

We parked and walked down the hill into the park, hearing Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows singing. Shortly, we walked into a sizeable sparrow flock, dominated by Song Sparrows and Field Sparrows. We also found a good number of White-crowned Sparrows singing, and were able to get fleeting views of the striking plumage of adult birds.

Several minutes were spent checking every sparrow, until a Lincoln’s was found foraging a few feet away, right below our noses. The bird offered great views, and was a long awaited Albemarle County Lifer for Baxter.

We continued on towards the marsh, where we hoped to find Marsh Wrens. We arrived, and after pishing and playback, none responded. The trail led into thick grasses and brambles, and many Swamp Sparrows were calling, occasionally seen as they flew into cover.

We came into a clearing, and walked the edge towards a second marsh, where the ones who were smart enough to bring boots walked in. The sneaker-wearers watched from dry ground, waiting for Marsh Wrens to show themselves. With no luck, we continued down the edge, stopping briefly to enjoy the fruit of a persimmon tree.

The White-crowned Sparrows were even more abundant at the end of the trail, and many of the juveniles were brave enough to watch us from the tops of the brambles.


A young White-crowned Sparrow

We also saw a rather light-lored and orange-billed White-crowned Sparrow, possibly the rare western gambelli subspecies?


Gambelli candidate (Photo by Drew Chaney)

After finishing up at the park, we drove to the main Old Trail to find that it was pretty quiet. The sparrows were few and far between, so we turned around to head back. As we walked the trail, we spotted a dragonfly hovering low over some grasses, and watched it perch, hanging from the blade of grass. A Shadow Darner, a fairly common species that always found flying and rarely lands. A special treat for the dragonfly enthusiasts in the group!


Shadow Darner

We checked the pond, looking once again for Marsh Wrens, but only found a tame little Pied-billed Grebe.

As we returned to the car, we noticed a flock of late Tree Swallows. We got in the car, drove to the nearest gas station, and treated ourselves to honey buns, skittles, and other snacks.

We then drove 20 minutes north to Innisfree Village, where a Loggerhead Shrike had recently been seen. We had instructions from other birders who had gone to see this rarity, and learned that it had also been seen earlier in the morning, so our chances of seeing it looked promising.

We arrived at the spot and admired the gorgeous scenery: rolling pastures dotted with cedars and oaks, with boggy areas nestled in between the hills, all right up against the mountains.

After about ten minutes of searching, the bird was found sitting on top of an oak in the field. We all enjoyed the bird and viewed it through the scope. We also noticed several insects skewered onto the barbwire fence we stood along—evidence of the shrike’s presence.

We watched the bird chase a Blue Jay around, later a Yellow-rumped Warbler. It finally came a bit closer and perched on a nearby cedar.


How can a bird be so cute yet so menacing at the same time?

We followed the bird around for another hour, enjoying the views, sometimes waiting for him to return from hunting. Here’s a fun photo of him against the ridge:


Mountain Shrike

We departed, satisfied with a good morning of birding.

Sparrows in Central Virginia

Our car pulled into the parking lot of the Inn at Afton, an eerie, run-down motel overlooking Rockfish Gap. This motel is home to the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch, where birders gather to witness the spectacle of hawk migration.

Baxter, Tucker, Drew, and I noticed Ezra and his brother, along with some other field trip goers, staring up at the towering sign for the motel, which was situated in the center of the parking lot. The sign itself had fallen off, revealing the lights that previously illuminated the words “Inn at Afton”.

We stepped out of the car and found that they were watching a group of warblers roosting inside the sign, attracted to the beacon of light as they migrated down the spine of the Blue Ridge. After snatching our binoculars and cameras, we returned to the sign and began to identify all the warblers.

We found many yellowthroats, Tennessee Warblers, and Black-throated Blue Warblers, as well as a handful of parulas, Blackpoll Warblers, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Black-throated Green Warblers.


Tennessee Warblers (Photo by Tucker Beamer)


Bay-breasted Warbler

The most notable species were a somewhat late Chestnut-sided Warbler and a Nashville Warbler, both hopping around on the sign’s beams.


Nashville Warbler with a Northern Parula  (Photo by Tucker Beamer)


Chestnut-sided Warbler

After the frenzy of warblers faded out (we had ten species in the sign), we enjoyed the beautiful sunrise and returned to the parking lot, where we found many deceased Common Yellowthroats and Black-throated Blue Warblers on the asphalt, most likely a result of the sign.

We departed from the Inn and arrived at Rockfish Valley Trail almost a half-hour later. We walked the trail to the field, where we found a White-crowned Sparrow.


White-crowned Sparrow

We continued on the trail that circled the field, hearing many Swamp Sparrows and Song Sparrow calling from the thickets. A few revealed themselves in flight, as they flitted from one reed to the nearby brambles. One Swamp Sparrow was quite cooperative.


Swamp Sparrow

As we passed the bog, Baxter and I noticed a very gray sparrow clinging to a stalk, and with a fleeting view in the binoculars, it quickly retreated to the grasses from which it came: a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

No one else saw it, so we walked down the trail in hopes of refinding it. Ezra continued ahead and called “Lincoln’s!” We ran quickly in hopes of all seeing it, but arrived to find that the bird flew off. Frustrated, we decided to make another loop around the field and check out another field near the road.

After finishing the loop to no avail, we walked the bridge over a brook and started looking around. I then spotted a Lincoln’s posing on a sycamore, and everyone was finally able to get a good look and photos. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to snag a photo.

We took a quick look at Spruce Creek Park, hearing another White-crowned Sparrow and seeing a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks. Finding nothing else, we made our way back to the cars.

On our way back, we found another Lincoln’s Sparrow skulking around in some brush. This one was a lot closer and allowed for better viewing. We appreciated the gray face, buffy malar, and fine streaks on the breast. I also noticed some little spots on the rear end of the flanks, a feature of the species I had never noticed.


Lincoln’s Sparrow

Other notable species were a Merlin flyover, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Belted Kingfisher, and Palm Warblers, which were quite abundant. As late morning arrived, we decided that Swananoa would be more productive.

Swananoa, a mountaintop mansion just south of the Inn at Afton, with Route 610 lining its ridge. The road is one of the best spots for migrant passerines around. We arrived, finding Cape May Warblers, Palm Warblers, Pine Warblers, and Black-throated Blue Warblers.

Although the warblers were great, we were here to see a Gray-cheeked Thrush, which neither Ezra or I had seen this year. We walked down the road to an area with a more dense canopy, and began to see a good number of thrushes feeding on the Summer Grapes along the road. The grapes were ripe, so we gave them a taste and understood the reason why there were so many thrushes around.

We walked down the road feasting on grapes, and were surprised by the large numbers of Wood Thrushes and Scarlet Tanagers; it was getting a bit late for them. Blue-headed Vireos and Swainson’s Thrushes were everywhere, as well as good numbers of Hermits.

We continued on the road, and enjoyed a low flyover of two Common Ravens. Many unidentified thrushes were flushed, and we watched them fly down the ridge and out of view: oh, the pain of leaving “15 thrush sp.” on an eBird checklist. This continued for a long time, and we were starting to get frustrated by the lack of Gray-cheeked Thrushes.

We gave up and returned to Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch in a thick fog, where we found some more warblers and had a Red-headed Woodpecker flyover.

We decided to head to Old Trail, where a Clay-colored Sparrow had been sighted the previous day. Doubtful that the bird was around, we arrived in the heat of midday, and walked out to a patch of Pokeweed.

We split up and started looking around, and after a few minutes, Baxter called “I’ve got the Clay-colored!” I ran quickly, anxious to see the bird, but by the time everyone had arrived, the bird had retreated into the thickets. A bit nervous, we waited a few minutes and tried pishing the bird out. Thankfully, the little guy hopped out and perched for a few seconds, offering some fantastic views.


Clay-colored Sparrow, lifer!

A perfect end to the trip, we returned to the car.

Baxter, Tucker, Drew, and I were picked up by Baxter and Tucker’s mom, and we stopped at Mud House for a quick drink and snack, and headed to McIntire Marsh, where we hoped to snag one last sparrow for the daylist, a Savannah Sparrow.

We arrived and immeadietly saw one perched in a tree. We walked around and checked the marsh for Marsh Wrens, with no luck. On our way back to the parking lot, we got some better views of the Savannah in the field.

A succesful day of nine sparrow species and a lifer!

Birding Pocosin Cabin and Skyline Drive

The Blue Ridge Young Birders met at the Barnes and Noble parking lot, where we crammed into a few cars and headed north on 29. We went through the park gate and hopped onto Skyline Drive, the scenic road lining the backbone of the Shenandoah National Park’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

The cool mountain air felt refreshing after a long, hot summer. After passing many scenic overlooks of the Valley and Appalachian Mountains in the distance, we arrived at the fire road and parked. The lot was situated in the middle of a large woodland, but we continued down the trail, and after several minutes of walking the bird activity increased.

We approached the clearing where Pocosin Cabin was situated, and found a plethora of thrushes, warblers, and vireos. The log cabin was built in 1937 and has been frequently used by visitors and AT hikers every since.


The young birders at Pocosin Cabin 

Swainson’s Thrushes, Blue-headed Vireos, and Tennessee Warblers were the most numerous, as well as the Bay-breasted and Blackpoll Warblers. We also saw a Northern Parula, a Blackburnian Warbler, and a Black-throated Green Warbler. As we were watching a posing Yellow-billed Cuckoo, I spotted a vireo with a yellow throat and undertail coverts and a snow-white belly: a Philadelphia Vireo. The bird quickly flew away, and only a few were able to see it.

Hoping to find another, we continued down the trail and enjoyed watching a posing Black-throated Blue Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush.


Swainson’s Thrush

Minutes later, the Philly Vireo was refound and offered the whole group stunning views. He flitted around in the trees and hid from my camera, but Ezra got a very nice photo.


Philadelphia Vireo (Photo by Ezra Staengl)

The group continued down the trail, finding lots of Jewelweed: great Connecticut Warbler habitat. The herpers (Carson and Robert) started turning rocks along the brook, finding several salamander species, including Red-backed (both the red-backed and lead-backed phases) and Southern Two-lined.



We also found several sizable Northern Dusky Salamanders:


On our way back, we saw some Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Black-and-white Warbler. We returned to the parking lot, all satisfied with our Philadelphia Vireo, which was a lifer for several and a Virginia Yearbird for many.